NEW YORK – The usually-reliable Henrik Lundqvist had an off night at the worst time for the Rangers.
Lundqvist faced just 16 shots – a season-low against the Rangers - but the Blues won, 4-3, Thursday at Madison Square Garden. Three of the goals looked stoppable.
Meanwhile in Boston, the Penguins beat the eighth-place Bruins, 3-0, leaving the ninth-place Rangers (31-31-9) three points out of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot with a critical game Sunday at Boston. The 10th-place Thrashers also won Thursday, leaving them tied in points with the Rangers with 71.
So instead of making a strong playoff push, the Rangers find themselves in a 2-4-2 rut. And the Bruins, who also don’t play until Sunday, still have a game in hand.
The Rangers are in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Wade Redden tied the game at 3-3 at 7:11 of the third period, the much-maligned defenseman’s second of the season and first in 58 games. But Paul Kariya regained the lead for the Blues 1:13 later, tipping in T.J. Oshie’s centering pass for his 400th career goal.
The Rangers frustration reached its apex early in the third period as the Blues’ Erik Johnson flipped the puck over the glass for a delay of game six seconds in and Roman Polak followed suit 43 seconds later. Yet the Rangers managed just one five-on-three shot in 1:17 and just one skating one man up.
Ty Conklin made 26 saves for the Blues (33-28-9).
Yet coach John Tortorella just laughed when asked before the game whether he had any fears the Rangers would look past the Blues toward Sunday’s showdown.
“I know our guys are smart enough and I respect them well enough that they can’t look by anything,” Tortorella said. “You look by something, the next one might not mean anything.”
With this three-game homestand concluded, the Rangers now play eight of their final 11 games on the road. On the plus side, six of those games are against teams currently below the Rangers in the conference standings, including two games apiece against the Islanders and Maple Leafs.
The Rangers certainly looked like a team looking ahead as Brad Boyes snapped a shot over Lundqvist’s glove at 1:10 of the first period on the game’s first shot.
Oshie and David Backes both hit the post for the Blues in the first period but the Rangers led 2-1 at the first intermission.
The Rangers weren’t so lucky in the second period as the Blues scored two soft goals on six shots.
Defenseman Mike Weaver, who had gone 184 games without a goal, tied it at 2:21 on a shot from inside the blue line that Lundqvist missed. Johnson made it 3-2 at 5:45 with an unassisted power play goal, a flip from the right boards that trickled through Lundqvist’s five-hole after Redden tripped Boyes at 4:32.
Meanwhile, for the third straight game since his benching, Sean Avery was a key factor.
He goaded Eric Brewer into knocking him down at the Blues’ crease as they battled for position at 5:15 of the first period and with Brewer in the penalty box for roughing, Ryan Callahan tipped in Olli Jokinen’s slap shot to tie the game at 1-1 at 5:52. Avery also drew a tripping penalty against Weaver at 14:45 of the first period, though Lundqvist was forced to stop two shorthanded breakaways.
Marian Gaborik made it 2-1 at 17:08 of the first period with just his second goal in eight games as his wrist shot rose off Carlo Colaiacovo’s stick and handcuffed Ty Conklin, who tried to backhand it with his glove.
Brandon Prust, listed at 5-foot-11, re-energized the Rangers after Boyes’ goal as he fought – and beat – Brad Winchester at 2:53 despite giving up six inches and 36 pounds.